Mich. shrinks safety net for poor as poverty rises

October 5, 2011 - 6:55 PM
Shrinking Safety Net Michigan

Michele Shoemaker sits in the front porch of her home Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011 in Jackson, Mich. Shoemaker has only 5 more days to move out of the home she has occupied for the last 5 years because she no longer can pay the $500 monthly rent without cash assistance from the State of Michigan. With no new home on the horizon Shoemaker has no idea what she will do with her furniture, her dog or herself. (AP Photo/Kevin W. Fowler)

LANSING, Mich.. (AP) — Michele Shoemaker spent Wednesday packing, faced with a weekend deadline to leave the simple two-bedroom rental in Jackson where she and her 15-year-old son have lived for five years. About to be cut off from welfare and with no job, she has sent him to live with her sister and his cousins, but there's no room for her.

Shoemaker, 38, said Medicaid will cover the costs of treating her bipolar disorder and painful fibromyalgia, but even if she could find a job after 10 years on welfare, perhaps as a waitress or cook, it would be hard to keep because of her mood swings. She's losing her home and has no place to go, but she says the hardest thing is the loss of her son.

"I want him home and I don't even have a home for him to come to," she said, fighting through tears.

Shoemaker is among an estimated 40,000 people — half of them children — about to be purged from Michigan's welfare rolls under tighter restrictions on public aid adopted this year by the new Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature.

Welfare benefits aren't the only place the state is shaving costs. An unknown number of Michigan's 1.9 million food stamp recipients will lose their monthly stipends if they have more than $5,000 in certain assets. Low-income residents can expect much less help with their winter heat bills because a state program that provided $60 million in assistance is tied up in court, and the state's earned income tax credit for low-income workers has been dropped from an average of more than $400 a year to just over $100.

The Republican leadership says the state can't afford to pay for an eternal safety net, and that the aid programs were never intended to be used indefinitely.

But advocates for the poor say the new restrictions threaten to push already struggling families further into poverty.

"Michigan's still struggling with record high unemployment," said Gilda Jacobs of the Michigan League for Human Services, a Lansing-based advocacy group for low-income residents. "This is not the time to be making drastic policy shifts that will affect tens of thousands of families and children."

The cutbacks are hurting not only the rising number of Michigan children and families living in poverty, but families once solidly in the middle class that have lost jobs in the state with the nation's third-highest unemployment rate — 11.2 percent. GOP lawmakers earlier this year cut unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks at the same time they accepted an extension of federal jobless benefits. But the six-week cut still hurts, and unemployed workers counting on food assistance until they find another job no longer are likely to qualify.

Michigan has moved so quickly that a federal judge on Tuesday temporarily halted the removal of nearly 10,000 families from the welfare rolls, rebuking the state for notifying recipients in such a vague and untimely way that it has to notify them again. The notices went out fewer than three weeks before families were to lose their benefits, telling them they had 90 days to appeal but would be losing their benefits Oct. 1 regardless.

Jacobs said 8,000 to 9,000 recipients may get another month of assistance because of the ruling, enough to give them "some breathing room."

Bonnie Baker said she's glad for the reprieve. The 27-year-old Jackson resident has been on and off welfare for a decade, and recently hit the four-year limit. Learning just weeks ago that she was losing $597 in monthly benefits for her and her three children has left her scrambling. She sent her 10-year-old son to live in the northern part of the state with her brother while she and her 4- and 7-year-old daughters bounce from friend to friend as she looks for work.

"I've been putting in applications everywhere. No one has called," she said. While she thinks the four-year limit is fair, "they should have given a longer notice so we could be more prepared as far as getting situated with housing and basic needs."

The Department of Human Services notes that low-income residents still get health care services through Medicaid and most remain eligible for food stamps. Although a Michigan family of three can't qualify for welfare benefits unless it has less than $10,000 a year in income — far below the $18.530 federal poverty line — those already on welfare can earn more money than before without losing their benefits.

The agency has promised to connect those losing welfare benefits with nonprofit agencies and other resources and give housing and job placement assistance for up to three months, although Baker said no one from the state has contacted her about any of the programs.

Michigan still offers exemptions to the four-year limit for those with a disability who can't work, those who care for a disabled spouse or child and those who are 65 or older and don't qualify for Social Security benefits or receive very low benefits.

The new law will reduce the number of children and adults receiving cash assistance by nearly a fifth, from more than 221,000 to around 180,000. It comes as the number of Michigan children living in poverty has increased from 14 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2009, above the national average of 20 percent. Half of Detroit's children are estimated to be living in poverty.

Enforcing a four-year limit is expected to save the state more than $60 million annually, although it won't save money by trimming the food stamp rolls because the program is paid with federal dollars.

Lisa Beech is among those who think people should take steps to better themselves rather than rely on public assistance. She got help paying her heating bill last year after she lost her job working with the mentally ill, but she enrolled in nursing school and says she won't seek state assistance again.

Losing public assistance "is a sign saying, 'You need to get a job,'" the 41-year-old Lansing resident said.

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Kathy Barks Hoffman can be reached at http://twitter.com/kathybhoffman.